The Turkish Grand Prix is live on 5 Live and the BBC Sports website
So far, Lewis Hamilton’s damage control exercise at the Turkish Grand Prix is going according to plan.
Mercedes realized at the beginning of the weekend that Hamilton’s title rival Max Verstappen would regain the championship lead on Sunday.
The Dutchman starts the race just two points behind and Hamilton has a 10-place penalty for using too many engine parts.
But Mercedes had to find a way to prevent the Red Bull driver from gaining too much ground on Hamilton. So they had two ambitions for qualifying on Saturday.
The first was for Hamilton to qualify as quickly as possible in order to guarantee the best possible starting position for the race. The second was for team-mate Valtteri Bottas, who finished second so the Finn would start from pole after Hamilton’s relegation, which gave him the best chance of preventing Verstappen from winning.
The mission was accomplished on Saturday – the seven-time champion overtook Bottas in qualifying by 0.13 seconds, while Verstappen was 0.328 seconds behind the pace.
Even better for Hamilton is that Verstappen and Red Bull failed to bring their car to a satisfactory position in terms of handling balance and the Mercedes had a comfortable pace advantage during practice and qualifying at Istanbul Park.
Verstappen also admitted his concerns about starting on the grid, where the grip is significantly worse than on the ideal line, which theoretically reduces his chances of beating Bottas in the first corner.
How could the race develop?
On paper there are two races with interrelated consequences as part of the championship standings on Sunday.
The first is for the win between Bottas and Verstappen, although Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari could cause some problems if he can get over the line well from third on the grid.
The second falls between Hamilton and the rest of the field when it comes to how much progress the Brit can make towards the end of the race.
After qualifying, Hamilton gave mixed messages about his expectations and ambitions for Sunday afternoon.
With his realistic perspective, the 36-year-old said he imagined it would be “difficult to move up”. But at the same time, Hamilton ruled nothing out.
His approach is “partly cautious, but also super offensive – I somehow want to win the race, so that’s my goal”.
A realistic Hamilton directed people to the last race in Russia, where Verstappen served his own engine-related starter penalty.
There the 24-year-old made rapid progress, starting from behind, until he met the faster midfielders who could not be overtaken until the rain in the final laps.
Only the right decisions about when to stop in the rain after the race to get tires made it possible for Verstappen to convert a likely seventh place into a second place behind Hamilton.
So for Verstappen, his damage control race in Russia went as he had hoped.
Hamilton has won five races so far this season
No obvious strategic advantages
Hamilton’s hopes on Sunday are compounded by the fact that all but one driver in the top 10 ahead of him will start on the same ‘medium’ compound tires as him.
Usually the top group was split, with Mercedes and Red Bulls moving fast enough to get into qualifying two – which defines a driver’s starting tire – on the optimal race tire while the others were forced to choose the softest option.
This weekend, however, the switch is so bad that only Yuki Tsunoda from Alpha Tauri in 10th place ahead of Hamilton will start with it.
That makes it harder for Hamilton to move forward because the other front men will only see their tires as fast as he does and not faster than if they were on the softer tires. He’ll have a pace advantage, but will it be enough to overtake her?
Mercedes F1 boss Toto Wolff said: “It would have been easier if we had had a tire displacement strategy, but [trying to get through second qualifying on] the hards would have been a little too bold.
“We expected some of the other guys in front of us to set the course to make sure they were in Q2 but that didn’t happen which is a bit of a setback.
“He can only try to give his best. I wouldn’t want another driver in the car when it comes to overtaking and driving through the field than Lewis. Nevertheless, we simulated a few situations yesterday and it is very difficult to follow in traffic .
“There’s not much left but to try strategy and hope that the lead train doesn’t fade into the distance.”
Bottas at the top, said Wolff, “will contest his race”. “This is about the race win and we are not going to team up,” he added.
However, Verstappen suspects that he and Hamilton will meet over the course of the race.
“You have a lot of speed all weekend,” said Verstappen, “so I definitely expect him to be behind me at some point.”
And he added that he thought Hamilton’s chances of finishing the race on the podium were “very good”.
The Briton Lando Norris came close to victory in the last race and remains fourth in the drivers’ standings
Two potentially important developments
Whatever the outcome of the race, the weekend has revealed some other interesting facets of the closest title battle between drivers from two different teams in a decade or more.
This is the second race in a row in which one of the competitors has received a starter penalty for taking more engine parts than allowed. But the circumstances of the penalties for the two drivers are different.
Verstappen’s penalty arose from the fact that he lost one of his Honda engines in the first lap accident with Hamilton at Silverstone. Hamiltons is because Mercedes deals with reliability issues.
“When you start to exceed the limits of the performance of an engine, at a certain point in time you run into some obstacles,” said Wolff.
“Our gensets are the most reliable since the hybrid engine was introduced in 2014, and as the boundaries are being pushed we’ve seen examples of unusual noises inside the internal combustion engine that weren’t fully understood.
“They have caused some problems in the past. We had some engines that basically failed and now the point is to contain the problem because replacing parts is not something that would be addressed.”
With this in mind, can you reach the end of the season without any further problem?
In the meantime, there are only the beginnings of what looks like the impression that Mercedes may be starting to carve out a slim performance advantage over Red Bull.
In the first half of the season, Red Bull had a narrow lead over Mercedes. Up until the summer break, her average ultimate pace advantage in dry qualifying was 0.014 seconds. But since the teams have come back together, Mercedes is ahead – with 0.234 seconds.
Now it’s important to add a caveat to that. In the second half of the season there were only three dry qualifying sessions and one of them in Monza, a track where Mercedes was ahead. The sample is small and therefore cannot be representative.
Even so, Wolff admitted that Mercedes began to make progress with their car after a difficult start to the season after rule changes in winter that seemed to affect them more than Red Bull.
“We gradually understood the car better,” adds Wolff. “The regulations introduced at the beginning of the year created a situation where you have to drive the car where we haven’t driven in recent years. The more we drive, the more we drive, the more we would drive.” Simulating situations, the better we did.
“Today we would have been first and second with a good margin, with a solid margin.
“Unfortunately Lewis has to go back. But the nice thing about it is that we have the pace and there are six plus one races left, and where the car is today it is definitely much better than in spring and summer.”
It’s just beginning, and there’s still a third of the season to go, with at least one race – Mexico in early November – that Mercedes thinks they have next to no chance of competing with Red Bull.
However, should this trend continue in the coming events, the general impression that Verstappen remains a close favorite for the title could change. Even if, as likely, he recaptures the championship lead on Sunday.
One to definitely watch out for.